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from the June 2014 issue

from “Last Words from Montmartre”

Letter Ten

May 11

Dearest Yong,

My sister sent me the two CDs that I wanted. She sent them on May 7. The courier rang the doorbell and handed them to me this morning, and I immediately rushed over to my desk to record the flood of Tokyo memories. The two CDs were of music we listened to together in Tokyo. I secretly hid our love we experienced in three of the tracks.

I’m still waiting for the pictures we took, the ones I took of you and the ones you took of me, and most of all, those of both of us. You hate having your picture taken. I had to force you to borrow a camera from a friend, saying it was a shame you didn’t even have a single picture of me. I could die soon; perhaps this trip to Tokyo would be the last time we’d see each other, and so I visited to give you whatever remained of my love in this life. If you were to lose me forever, and not possess even one picture of the one you had loved so deeply, you’d have difficulty recalling the way she looked when she belonged to you alone, which would be too sad. How could you keep so little of me? And I really was beautiful while in Tokyo . . .

I haven’t received the pictures yet. When I called you yesterday, I didn’t dare ask if you had sent them or not, as I knew you had already ensconced me in a hidden corner of your life. You didn’t want me to write you or call you, and I could feel your fierce resistance, a temperamental cry from within, aimed at me: “I don’t need anyone. I’m fine on my own!” Leaving the phone booth outside the post office, I stood for a moment by the door, my legs weak, head swimming, and grieved for you. I would never hurt you, and I have always been gentle with you. Why do you resist even me? If other people hurt you, why do you hurt yourself even more, throwing away everything you could have? I feel sorry for you! Are you really telling me that you want me to walk away from you for another three years? It’s precisely because I understand you so well that I’ve become weakened. I don’t know how to persuade you to not stubbornly founder in the “wasteland of love.” I don’t know how to overcome your stubbornness. I know how cruel it was when I turned my back on you for three long years. What you asked of me sharply contrasted with what you really needed from me. In the past I had been defeated, I felt defeated and took your outward refusal and cold rejection at face value, so I just left and didn’t look back.

(Being abandoned was more painful than death . . .) You said this to me so simply.

Yong, before, I tried to see you as a fictionalized figure, and even in Tokyo you stopped trusting my memory and joked that all my memories of you were fictionalized. But would you be able to face them if they weren’t fiction? Could you accept my uninhibited desire for you? Could you bear to know what you’ve rejected? If I spoke the whole truth, would you face it instead of waiting quietly for death in a pit of grief?

My way of loving you is to allow myself to be defeated by you.

Obey you. Surrender my rights. Cherish you, cherish you, and cherish you again.

Do you see it? Are you willing to see it?

You’re the only one who inherently understands the complexities of who I am.

If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He hadn’t reached his potential; he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?

Dazai detested hypocrisy above all. One could even argue that it was the world’s hypocrisy that killed him. Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet Dazai adored, also hated hypocrisy. Dazai used to say that people loved pretense, and terrified him.

I arrived at Tokyo Narita airport on March 24, 1995.

I left Paris from de Gaulle on the twenty-third, took a sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, then another four-hour flight to Tokyo.

On the flight to Hong Kong I sat by the window and trembled each time there was turbulence and the captain asked passengers to stay calm and remain seated. I had a premonition that the plane would crash and was overwhelmed by an atmosphere of death that would spare no one. The other passengers and flight attendants became cheerless as the turbulence battered the plane again and again. I stared out the window into the bright white clouds, picturing the plane’s explosion and what my body would look like as it disintegrated into burning bits. I repeatedly asked the stewardesses for a different beer, and though I knew I couldn’t possibly fall asleep, I did everything I could to shorten the time, however little remained, between each flame that licked at my heart with the expectation of seeing Yong again.

My whole body trembled, but not from fear of death. I wasn’t the least bit frightened of physical death, for in that moment the extinction of my physical body would only set me free. In the ten days since my breakdown on March 13, I hadn’t been able to sleep. I drank a lot in order to pass out, but those intermittent periods of unconsciousness were hardly restful, plunging me into elliptical nightmares from which I woke up screaming and crying. The combined spiritual and physical pain was too much. I vomited anything I tried to eat. I lost all energy in my traumatic state and my liver and other organs felt brutally decimated after ten days of drinking, locked in my room. I only wished to staunch the waves of stupefying agony erupting from my brain . . . this time, I was sure I would die. Shivering in my bed, throat dry and head throbbing as if a bomb had gone off inside. Nobody knew that since March 13 I had been slamming my temples against the wall in fits and now dried blood covered my left ear and turned into clumps in my hair . . . I was certain of my own death, so I called my mother and eldest sister, Shui Yao and Yong, and told them honestly (except my ma) that I was on the edge of death . . . I fought to get to Japan as I wanted to fulfill one of two last wishes—I wanted to give Yong my unrestrained physical love, a passion I had failed to give her before.

The day before my departure, I dragged myself to Camira’s family doctor to get a prescription for a month’s worth of sleeping pills. The doctor was kindly and asked me to lie down to give me a checkup. When he saw the scars under my sleeves and the traces of blood around my temple, he paused, silent for a moment. He didn’t ask me anything and I didn’t volunteer anything. I guess he could tell that I had suicidal tendencies, so he was unwilling to give me more sleeping pills. As I shook his hand to leave, he said softly and with understanding, “Trahison?” (“Betrayal?”) As I closed the door of the clinic behind me, I choked back the tears about to pour out, overcome with emotion.

The irony is that I had researched sleeping pills before visiting a  previous doctor, Jean-Marc Guerrera, and told him “Je ne crois pas du tout le somnifère.” He just smiled and handed me the prescription. That was the first time I took them.

As someone who was against sleeping pills, I decided in the end to take them again not because I wanted to kill myself but because I wanted to not kill myself. And I did it for Yong. I couldn’t put her through the disgusting drama of a second suicide attempt.

The first time it happened was March 18. Five days after, I made up my mind to apply for a Japanese visa and regained a thread of motivation to live.

My favorite professor’s class was on Saturday. The professor was my guiding light during that year in France, a brilliant beacon radiating art and life. I was able to see her every two weeks. She was a true literary mentor and she was my guardian angel. Every two weeks I dragged my wretched self to the lecture hall at the International Institute of Philosophy and sat in the back to watch her, soaking in her voice. That day the professor was hurt and angry, as she impassionately told us that the increasingly powerful right wing would no longer “support” our kind of postgraduate program. She had three days to respond to an ultimatum from the Ministry of Education informing her of the decision to annul the registrations of ten new doctoral students and twenty students already advanced to candidacy in our program . . . I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard this, thinking to myself that this might have the immediate unexpected benefit of allowing me to write my thesis under her supervision, which is what I wanted from the beginning, and I couldn’t care less whether the French government granted me a degree. My professor said that we should use the international press to put pressure on the French government and resist to the bitter end. Time to start a revolution, and who better to wage guerrilla war than the graduate student underground? Let’s march and turn our world around!

After class the same evening my professor was having a book-signing event at Des Femmes. Over coffee, I chatted with my Icelandic classmate Irma, Italian classmate Monika, and French classmate Myriam about the presidential election and the battle against the right-wing government to preserve our program. Later we walked from rue des Écoles to Odéon in the heart of the Latin Quarter. There was a fine drizzle typical of late winter and early spring, not cold just slightly cool, and the streets were filled with students. Dusk in the Latin Quarter was like a fairy tale or a love poem, like a Klimt mosaic, like glowing, rose-colored clouds reaching toward the heavens . . . a swath of gold ringed in a misty-blue halo, this was the Paris that most entranced me. None of us had brought an umbrella, and the other three women hurried ahead while I nearly burst with glee, singing one song after another deep down in my throat in unintelligible (to them) Chinese. They turned back to make funny faces at me, glowering, scolding, smirking. Their golden, chestnut-brown hair dampened by the rain, glittered in the sunset. They were beautiful, Paris was beautiful, life was beautiful, and I and them, I and Paris, my life felt so dear. We were four children under heaven, without nationality or student credentials, far from home, each abandoned by her beloved.

Pour mon oiseau chinois dont j’attends qu’elle m’envoie une message de sa plume.” (“For my little Chinese bird, from whose pen I’ve been waiting to receive a message.”)

This is how my professor, head lowered as if she dare not look at me, signed the first page of her new novel, La fiancée Juive de la tentation.

Heart racing, I received the novel from her hands. Across the table, I said I wanted to give her a kiss, and she stood to let me kiss each cheek, and I shyly said in Chinese in her ear, “I love you,” and then repeated this in French in the courteous form, “Je vous aime” (though actually it should have been the intimate form, “Je t’aime,” but I was too shy to tell her). She handed me a blank sheet of paper and I wrote down the Chinese for her: I love you.

I practically bounded with joy all the way home. It must have been almost eight when I exited the Simplon Métro stop on the number 4 line and walked along rue Joseph Dijon. In the middle of Montmartre, in front of the Mairie, the church bells rang out from the Église Jules Joffrin, reverberating through my body and soul . . . I grabbed the professor’s novel from my backpack, reread the inscription, and realized that the “message” she’d been waiting for me to “send” to her was the exact one I had written, as if possessed by a spirit, transcribing “I love you” in Chinese . . . “Message” was a key word that she often talked about in her lectures as well used as une métaphore. What did this minor transport signify for my life?

The whole of March 18 was so poetically and emotionally satisfying that I went a little wild.

Midnight in Paris, early morning in Tokyo, I called Yong and told her I had hurt myself badly and was preparing to die that night and would not make it back to Tokyo. When I thought she was  insulting me, I hung up on her. She called me right back, pissed off, and began a fierce argument over the phone. She spoke wildly and said that if I really wanted her to spend her tuition money, her living expenses, plus money that could be used for my medical bills, all on international phone charges then so be it! She asked what she could possibly do in that exact moment? I felt deeply ashamed of myself and swore that no matter what I would never reach out to her in such a precarious state again.

“I know you think you may be better off dead, but when you die you disappear forever, and I would never see you again . . .”

March 24. Tokyo at dusk. We’d been apart for three years. At the arrival gate at Narita airport I finally saw her again.

Short black jacket, black pleated skirt, a yellow wool knit sweater. The black so elegant, the yellow eye-catching. Her long hair was combed neatly back, and the little makeup she wore highlighted her red lips and big sparkly eyes. She was carrying a chic little black purse. I thought she looked great and had grown up a lot.

Before I left Paris I had gotten a haircut, threw out my old jeans, and bought an entirely new outfit. Brown plaid overcoat, soft gray pants with black stripes, white cotton shirt, a cream-colored vest, a worn brown cap and brown leather shoes, a gray scarf. I pulled one suitcase along and wore a black backpack. Inside the suitcase I had packed some clothes and many books: a biography of Marguerite Yourcenar, Derrida’s Mémoire d’aveugle, my professor’s audiobook Préparatifs de noces au delà de l’abîme, and a lot of Chinese poetry . . . My diary and sleeping pills were in my backpack. I wanted to look my best for her, a final image of myself.

After I passed through customs I saw her in the crowd right away, but she didn’t see me. I called out to her and leaped over to kiss her . . .

We rode the high speed train to Tokyo. She couldn’t stop talking about the landscape on the way, rude Japanese people, her daily life, how she’d been waiting for me all afternoon, scanning the screens for my arrival, searching for my face among the hundreds of faces until her eyes hurt, expecting to see me in blue jeans and a black jacket, fearful of missing me because I had told her I didn’t have much money and had forgotten all my English, and that it was my first solo trip to Tokyo, so she couldn’t leave me alone in Narita . . . On and on she talked as I smiled quietly and listened. Neither of us dared look at the other, until suddenly she turned to me and said, “It’s good to see you.”

She was so happy, but she’s not the type to admit it, I could tell.

Yong, if I tell you the whole truth, if I expressed my undying love for you with all my being, could you handle it? Would you accept me? Or would you laugh or get angry, or turn your back and sink into silence? If I no longer try to conceal anything from you, shed away my pretense, would you find this blasphemous?

© Qiu Miaojin. Translation © 2014 by Ari Larissa Heinrich. Forthcoming from New York Review Books. 

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